As we previously reported, in her interview with Glamour, Kerry Washington talked about how early on in Scandal, the character of Olivia Pope was pretty much fashioned to be “raceless.”
“In the first season, it was as if Olivia Pope was raceless,” Washington said. “There was no denying that Olivia was a black woman, because I’m a black woman playing her in badass white trench coats that call to attention the fact that I’m not looking like anybody else on television. But we didn’t talk about her identity as a black person.”
But after reading a new Hollywood Reporter interview with Washington, Shonda Rhimes and the minds behind the hit series, it all makes sense. Olivia Pope was initially treated as a non-Black woman because ABC originally wanted the character to be just that. Rhimes attempted to put her foot down, reminding everyone that the character was based on real-life fixer, Judy Smith, who is Black. But at a time when there were no women leading a drama series on prime-time TV, the request to have Pope be Black seemed ridiculous. In fact, a specific White actress was the top choice for everyone but Rhimes.
“Nothing felt more important than the sense of outsiderness,” Rhimes said. “I didn’t know that there hadn’t been a drama series with a leading black woman for 37 years. When the show got picked up [to pilot], I got a phone call from somebody who said, ‘This would be the perfect show for Connie Britton.’ I said, ‘It would be, except Olivia Pope is black.’”
Britton is known for her work as the star of Nashville and the very first season of American Horror Story. She’s great (even Washington said during the interview, “This would have been a great role for Connie Britton!”), but not the right fit. Still, the network was persistent. There were questions about whether or not a Black lead could really make waves internationally.
“The network was reading us their top choices, and it was Connie and all white women,” said Linda Lowy, casting director for the series. “I panicked. Somebody finally piped up, ‘We’re going to have to redo this list.’”
Thankfully, ABC budged on their list of White actresses and let Rhimes have her Black Olivia Pope, who eventually ended up being the perfect fit for Kerry Washington.
“We tested Kerry, Jill Scott and Anika Noni Rose,” said Lowy. “It was Kerry from the moment I took her to meet Shonda.”
Rhimes added, “She could talk Washington more than I could talk Washington. She was different than what I originally envisioned. We were all like, ‘Oh my God,’ because she’s tiny, cute, pretty and younger — and because she was all those things, she was aware that people would underestimate her.”
Despite whatever people may say about the series these days, we can all agree that Washington has defied possible detractors as Pope. She consistently knocks it out of the park. Connie Britton, though? Nah.
Images via WENN